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Practice Motivation

Erich Tucker | February 2020

Question: Some days I don’t want to practice. Do you have any suggestions to motivate me?

Answer: Struggling to maintain the motivation to practice is a problem that most flutists encounter at some point. Just asking this question shows that you are on the path to overcoming this obstacle.
Identify Why
    First, ask yourself why you do not want to practice as there may be a simple, easy solution. Understanding why you wish to skip a practice session could mean the difference between taking a necessary day off or starting down the slippery slope of developing a bad habit. Dealing with the issue quickly might lead you back to a readiness to practice. For instance, if you are hungry, grab a healthy snack or evaluate your nutritional habits. If you are tired, take a nap or make sure you are sleeping enough. If you are feeling overwhelmed, create a to-do list, or explore the possibility that you may be overcommitted and should evaluate priorities. Sometimes not having an impending concert or audition takes the momentum out of practice routines. So, plan a recital or recording project to create some new excitement.
    My practice time is a sanctuary where I hope to refine my best musical efforts. If boredom creeps in, I typically rally against it by changing my routine, finding a new inspiring practice environment, or even throwing in a bit of pre-practice workout, cardio, or yoga to energize my mind and body. I also jumpstart my routine by shopping for new repertoire, listening to recordings, or attending live concerts.
Practice Anyway
    Sometimes there may not be a clear-cut reason why you do not want to practice. Some days it may be necessary to show up and just practice anyway. While you may not feel like practicing, you can choose action over feeling, especially when there is an impending concert or audition. I remind myself that while I have thoughts and emotions, I am not defined by them. Stay on schedule, press forward through the resistance, and know that it will be worthwhile in the end. My high school band directors, James and Sheila Sammons, taught me that the best excuse does not get the job done. These words have carried me through much of my professional career, especially when other musicians and audience members are counting on me to know my part.
    Often initial inertia is the largest barrier. Consider slowly luring yourself back into the practice room by starting with music you love to rekindle your passion for creating music. I often negotiate with myself. For example, if I need to play for one hour, I will convince myself that thirty minutes of maintenance practice will suffice. Convincing yourself to start may become a powerful catalyst that increases motivation. Once I begin practicing, ideas start flowing, a momentum is established, and I frequently do not want to stop.
    If you are not able to intrinsically motivate yourself, find a partner or two for encouragement, or join the #100daysofpractice trend on social media. Rely on group momentum to propel yourself forward on days you do not think you can do it on your own.

Get Funky
    Perhaps your routine may simply need a makeover? Purposely add some spice into your routine by changing things up. Practice a melody backwards or section it off backwards. Practice vibrato with only your headjoint, holding a bag over the end to catch the air. Add in some extended techniques like pitch bending, flutter tonguing, harmonics, or singing while playing. Create some tuner or metronome games. Push the boundaries of your own creativity to ensure you are engaged. Sometime I practice for auditions with the television is blaring or while standing on one leg to make sure I can play the music under any circumstances. 
    Years ago, I saw Rhonda Larson perform an classical flute etude with cricket sounds playing through the sound system. Since then, I have not only added geophonic sounds into my live performances and recordings, but also my practice routine. I practice over the sounds of the ocean and thunderstorms. I add iTable app sounds to underscore my improv practice time so it feels more authentic.
    I also have a motivational secret weapon. If I find myself in a funk that I just can’t seem to shake, I revert to my emergency backup plan of laughter. I set a timer for 30-45 seconds and just laugh. This method has never failed me. Laughter holds many cognitive, neurological benefits. To get started, I often gear up by listening to Uncontrollable Laughter from the Broadway musical, Hands on a Hardbody.
    Once you have reestablished practice equilibrium, stay in the focus zone by celebrating both large and small accomplishments. My elementary school teachers made lists, charts, and stickers to motivate us, and these tools are equally helpful for both me and my flute students. I track my progress, tempos, and goals to monitor growth. Sometimes it is worth practicing just to check off an item on the chart. Determine what it takes for you to accomplish your flute goals. I have never finished a practice session and wished I had not spent that time with my flute.
Don’t Practice
    Consider also that time off from practicing might also have value, especially if you have been putting in extra effort lately. If you officially decide not to practice, use that time to relax, rest, or get stuff done, so when you return to the practice room, you are ready to focus on the flute. When asked how to write a novel Ernest Hemingway once said, “First, you have to defrost the refrigerator.” Time away from the flute may not be wasted, especially if it clears pathways for clarity and better quality  practice in the future. You could also spend this time on other essential components of your musical career, like marketing, networking, music theory, researching repertoire, or staying current on readings.
    It is also not likely that you are going to be productive if you don’t want to be practicing. I routinely ask myself, what would I like to be doing right now? Then, whenever possible, I go do just that. Many of my most engaging ideas spring from this level of artistic honesty. However, if resistance to flute practice becomes extreme or chronic, it may be time to reevaluate your commitments, and seek other activities to be passionate about. Heart-to-heart conversations with a mentor, teacher or friend can also provide valuable insights for solutions.